There’s been a lot of chatter on social media these last few weeks, recycling that trashy, self-aggrandizing, tired old “hot take” that reading and writing fanfiction is somehow bad for you as a writer.
Before we go any further, let me give a clear and definitive answer to this take:
No, reading and writing fanfiction will not make you and does not make you a bad reader or writer.
Why? Here’s the TL;DR version:
- Reading and Writing, any kind of reading and writing, will make you a better reader and writer. And it’s enjoyable, to boot.
- Fanfiction has been around as long as Original Fiction, so we’d know if there was any negative impact by now (spoiler alert: there isn’t.)
- Practice is Practice, so matter what medium you get that practice in.
- Comprehending and writing fanfiction is harder than writing original fiction because you have to hold the Source Media Text in your head at the same time as you’re reading/writing a different story. It improves your understanding of storytelling.
- No hobby, no matter what it is, so long as it doesn’t harm anyone else or yourself, is bad. And that goes double for if you decide to keep it a hobby. Not every fanfic writer wants to write original fiction, and that’s just fine. Not every hobby has to be monetized.
Okay. But what do they mean by “fanfiction”?
“Fanfiction is fictional writing written by fans, commonly of an existing work of fiction. The author uses copyrighted characters, settings, or other intellectual properties from the original creator as a basis for their writing.”– Wikipedia
Basically – it’s when you take elements (setting, characters, major themes or ideas) of a Media Text (a novel, a movie, a podcast, a comic, etc.) and create a different story with those elements. You can write a missing scene, or an extended episode, or a whole new adventure for the characters of the Media Text. You can even crossover or fuse multiple Media Texts, or specific elements, to create a whole new understanding of the characters or their worlds.
Similar to fanfic, you can also create fanart, fancomics, or fansongs (“filk”), fancostumes (“cosplay”), and fanfilms. These are called Fanworks or Fancrafts.
Fanfiction is usually posted to online forums, journals, blogs, or story archives and shared for free among the public. Before the advent of the internet, fanfiction was often printed or typed, and hand-copied using photocopiers or ditto machines, and distributed for free (or for a small administration fee to cover materials) among fans at conventions, or through mail-order booklets (“zines”).
Fanfiction has existed pretty much since the beginning of storytelling (A Thousand and One Nights, Robin Hood, and King Arthur all have different elements attributed to them by different authors retelling, twisting, adding to, or changing the stories; there’s no single-origin author of those tales.)
There are billions on billions of fanfics out there in the world—and while a majority of them are romance stories, there are also adventures, comedies, dramas, thrillers, stories based on case files, stories about the emotional connection between characters when one is hurt and the other must care for them, historical retellings, etc. There are also stories for every age range and taste, though be sure to take heed of the tags, trigger warnings, and age range warnings as your browse the archives and digital libraries.
As a reader, it’s your responsibility to curate your experience online.
So why are people so afraid or derisive of fanfic?
People who are hard on fanfic say that…
- It sucks.
- Well of course it sucks! As it’s a low-stakes and easy way to try out creative writing for the first time, the majority of fanfiction is overwhelmingly written by new and young writers. Everything you do when you first try it sucks a little bit. I’m sure no figure skater was able to immediately land perfect triple axels ten minutes after they strap on the skates for the first time in their lives. No knitter has ever made a flawlessly perfect jumper on their first try. No mathematician has ever broken the code to send a rocket into space after having just been taught elementary-school multiplication. So why on earth do people think that new writers don’t need to practice? I can promise you that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first rap was probably pretty shaky.
- It’s lazy or it’s cheating.
- Listen, anyone who tells you that writing anything is lazy clearly has not sat down and tried to write anything. Writing is tedious. It is It takes hours, and hours, and hours to get anything on the page, and then once it’s on the page you have to go back and edit it. UGH. There is nothing about being a writer—even a fanfic writer—that is lazy.
- And anyone who tells you that trying to tell a fresh, new story within the limits and confines of a pre-existing world and have it make sense is cheating, then they have no freaking clue how hard it is to be creative with that kind of limitation placed on you. It’s harder when you have a set of rules you need to follow. What you do come up with is often extremely interesting and creative because of those limitations, not in spite of them.
- The argument that using pre-made characters, settings, tropes, and worlds to make up a new story is cheating is also complete bunk. Do those same people also expect hockey players to whittle and plane themselves a whole new hockey stick from scratch before each game? No, of course not. And yeah, a baker can grow all their own wheat, grind the flour, raise the chickens and cows so they can get eggs and milk, distill the vanilla, etc. Or a baker can buy a box mix. Either way, you get a cake at the end of the process. Whether you write fanfic or original fiction, you still get a story at the end of the process.
- It makes you a worse
- * annoying buzzer noise * Practicing anything does not make you worse at it. And reading stories that are not edited, expertly crafted, or “high art” will also not indoctrinate you into being a bad writer. If anything, figuring out why you don’t like a specific story, trope, or writing style is actually a great way to learn what kind of writer you want to be, and to learn different methods of constructing sentences, creating images, and telling tales. Or you know, just how much spelling and grammar matter.
- It’s not highbrow or thoughtful enough.
- Sometimes stories are allowed to be just comfort food. Not every book or story you read has to be haute cuisine or boringly nutritious. You are allowed to read stories because they’re exciting, or swoony, or funny, or just because you like Anyone who says differently is a snob and worth ignoring. (Besides, fun silly stories can also be packed with meaning and lessons—I mean, hello, Terry Prachett, anyone?)
- It makes you waste all your time on writing that can’t be monetized.
- No time is wasted if you spend it doing something that brings you joy. Not every hobby needs to be a money-maker and not everyone wants to be a professional writer. You are allowed to write, and read, fanfic just for the fun of it.
- It’s theft.
- According to Fair Use Law, it’s not. As long as the fanfic writer (or artist, cosplayer, etc.) is not making money on their creation that directly impacts or cuts into the original creator’s profit, or is not repackaging/plagiarizing the original Media Text and profiting off it’s resale, then Fan Works are completely legal. So there.
How, exactly, does fanfic make you a better writer?
- teaches you to finish what you start.
- The joy of being able to share your fic, either as you’re writing it, or afterward, is a big motivating factor for a lot of people. They finish because they get immediate feedback on it from their readers and followers. Lots of people have ideas for books, but how many of them do you know have actually sat down and written the whole thing?
- Fanfic is also low-stakes; there’s nothing riding on whether you finish something or not, so you have to inspire yourself to get there without the outside (potentially negative) motivation of deadline or a failing grade if you don’t get the story finished. You end up learning how to motivate yourself.
- Fanfic has no rules, so you write as much or as little as you want, stop wherever you think is a good place to end the story, write it out of order, or go back and write as many sequels or prequels as you like. Again, it’s totally low-stakes and is meant to be for fun, so you can noodle around with what it means to write a “whole” story and “complete” it, which teaches you how you like to write, and how you like to find your way to the finish line.
- teaches you story structure.
- Before you can sit down and write a story based on one of your favorite Media Texts, you’re likely to spend a lot of time consuming that text passively, or studying it actively. Either way, you’re absorbing how and why Media Text structures the stories it tells, and are learning how to structure your own from that.
- Once you’re comfortable with the story structure the Media Text you’re working in is told, you’ll probably start experimenting with different ways stories can be told, and find the versions you like to work with best.
- teaches you how to write characters consistently.
- Fanfic is really hard because not only do you have to write your fave characters in a way that moves the story along, but they have to be recognizable as those fave characters.
- This means you have to figure out their body language, verbal and physical tics, their motivations and they way the handle a crisis (fight, flight, or fawn?), and then make up the details you may need for your story that you may never see on screen/the page, like how they take their eggs or what their fave shampoo is, based on what you already know about them. That takes some top-notch detective work and character understanding to pull off.
- Once you know how to do that, just making up a whole person yourself for original fiction is a breeze.
- Teaches you how to hear and mimic a character/narrator voice.
- You have to pay close attention to how an actor speaks, or how a character’s speech patterns, dialect, work choice, etc. is reflected on the page in order to be consistent in your story.
- And all of this, in turn, teaches you how to build one for yourself.
- I have a whole series of articles here about building a narrative voice, if you want to read more on constructing an original voice for your narrator.
- Teaches you how to create or recreate a setting.
- Again, like achieving character consistency, or mimicking a character or narrative voice, it takes work and paying attention in order to re-create a setting, time period, or geographical region in a fanfic—and if you’re taking your characters somewhere new, your readers will expect that setting to be equally rich as the one the Media Text is based in.
- Which, again, teaches you how to then go and build an original one for yourself.
- teaches how to take critique.
- Professional writing is not a solitary pursuit. In fact, most writing is not entirely the work of an author alone. Like professional authors work with editors, critique partners, and proofreaders, some fanfiction writers will sometimes work with beta-readers or editors as well. This are friends or fanfic colleagues who offer to read your fanfic and point out plot, character, consistency, or story structure errors, or who offer to correct spelling and grammar errors. This is a great way to practice working with editors if you decide to pursue a professional career, and also a great way to make friends and strengthen your community and skill set if you don’t.
- Many fanfic sites offer readers the opportunity to leave a comment on a fic, rather like a reviewer can leave a review on GoodReads or Amazon, or any other online store or blog, for a novel they’ve read. Sometimes these comments/reviews are 5 star and enthusiastic! Sometimes they are… not. The exact opposite in fact. As you get comments on your fanfic, and learn to ignore the ones that are just mean rather than usefully critical, you gain the Very Important Skill of learning to resist firing back at bad comments or reviews, while enjoying the good ones. It also teaches you how to ignore drama or haters.
- Teaches you how to exist within a like-minded community.
- While the actual writing part of writing is solitary and sometimes tedious, nothing is ever published into a vacuum, whether it be fanfiction or original. Besides your editing/critique/beta reader group, you will also likely develop friendships, a support network, and mutuals. It’s always great to uplift, support, cheer on, and celebrate one another’s accomplishments and victories, whether the writing is fanfic or original.
- Teaches you that it’s okay to write about things important to you, or your own identity.
- You can change a characters ethnicity, cultural background, sexuality, religion, or disabilities to match yours, and talk about your lived life through the megaphone of that character. Or, you can insert original characters based on you, your desires, and experiences.
- Once you’re comfortable writing in your #ownvoice in fanfic, you can approach it in original fiction, if you like.
- See my article titled Your Voice Is Valid for more on this.
What if I want to be a professional writer?
Notice how I didn’t say “real writer”. Any writer who writes any kind of story is a ‘real’ writer. I mean, pinch yourself—you’re real, right? The difference is actually between being an “amateur” writer (a hobbyist who does not write for pay), and a “professional” (who is paid for their writing). Just because you only play shinny on the street with your friends, or in a house league on the weekends, it’s doesn’t mean you’re not still as much of a hockey player as someone who plays in the NHL.
Writing fanfiction before or at the same time as writing original fiction that you intend to sell is a great way to learn, or practice, everything I’ve mentioned above. If you read it widely, it will also expose you to different story telling styles, voices, and tropes than your reading of published fiction.
- Can I sell my fanfic?
- For fanfiction to remain under the umbrella of Fair Use Law, you cannot profit off your fanfiction. There’s some grey-area wiggle room around things like charging a small amount for a ‘zine or a PDF to cover administrative costs, but zero wiggleability around, say, selfpublishing your fanfic and charging heaps for it.
- Can I “file off the serial numbers”?
- “Filing of the series numbers” is when you take a fanfic you’ve written and essentially pull it apart, remove everything that’s clearly someone else’s Media Text, and reassembling the story so that it’s pretty much a completely original piece of creative writing.
- Yes, you can sell these, provided your filing is rigorous enough that you aren’t likely to be dinged for plagiarism. It’s widely known that Cassandra Claire’s Shadowhunters was once Harry Potter fanfic, and that Fifty Shades of Gray was once Twilight But did you know that my Triptych started life as an idea for a Stargate Atlantis fic? There’s lots of stories out there that were once full fics, or the idea for the novel was originally conceived for a fandom, but written as original instead.
- So long as you’re careful to really rework the text so that it’s not just a find-name-replace-name rewrite, you should be fine.
- Be aware, though, that the agents and editors you might pitch this novel to know how to Google. They may discover that this is a filed-off story, and depending on their backgrounds and biases, might be concerned about it. There’s no need to inform them of the novel’s origin straight off in your pitch/query letter, but you may want to have a frank discussion with them about it after it’s been signed so they can help you make sure that any lingering copywrited concepts or characters are thoroughly changed before publication.
- Should you take down the original fic-version of the novel while you’re querying/shopping it? Well, that’s up to you, and whether you’re comfortable with an editor/agent potentially finding it.
- Should I be ashamed of my fic, or take it down, or pretend I never wrote fic?
- What? Why? No! I mean, I have hidden some of my most immature work, but I’ve left pretty much my whole catalogue of fanfic online and I don’t deny that I was/am a ficcer. Why? Because it’s a great repository of free stories that people can read before they buy one of my books, so they can get a taste of how and what I write. Also, you will be in good company. Lots and lots of writers who are published now-a-days started in fandom, including:
- Steven Moffat
- Seanan McGuire
- Rainbow Rowell
- Claudia Gray
- Cory Doctorow
- Marissa Meyer
- Meg Cabot.
- Naomi Novik.
- Neil Gaiman.
- Lev Grossman.
- E. Hinton.
- John Scalzi
- The Bronte Sisters
- Andy Weir
- Sarah Rees Brennan
- Marjorie M. Liu
- Anna Todd
- and of course, J.M. Frey
How fanfic can harm.
Like with anything else, there are ways that reading and writing fanfiction can actually harm you, or others, but it has nothing to do with the reading or writing of fanfiction in and of itself.
- Some creators may prefer that you don’t (and may or may not follow up with legal action).
- Anne Rice famously went after fanficcers in the 90s who wrote fanfic of her work, handing out Cease & Desist notices like confetti.
- 99% of creators don’t care. Those who do will generally have a notice on their websites or social media politely asking fancreators to refrain. Mostly this is due to their general discomfort over the idea of anyone else getting to play in their worlds. The best thing to do is respect that request, and find a different fandom to write in.
- Flamewars and fandom fights leading to bullying and doxing.
- Regrettably, just like any other community filled with people who have different favorites, opinions, and preferences, there will inevitably be clashes. It’s up to you to decide how to react to negative interactions, and how to model positive ones.
- Don’t forget, you curate your online experience, so don’t be afraid of that block button.
- Also, don’t be the jerk who goes after people for liking different aspects of the fandom. Everyone is entitled to interact and like a Media Text their own way. “Don’t yuck my yum,” as they say.
- Trying to make money on other people’s IP/Media Text (law suits, etc.)
- It doesn’t belong to you, so don’t try to make money on it.
- There’s a grey area here in terms of selling prints/plushies/jewelry/etc. and there’s no hard line about where one copyright owner will draw the line, and another won’t. Warner Bros. owns the film rights for both Harry Potter and Hunger Games, but I’ve seen Harry Potter-themed bars spring up while fans wanting to make Hunger Game fanfilms have been shut down. A friend of mine sells hand-made fandom-inspired items at cons—there is no rhyme or reason to what she gets told to stop making and what she’s left alone on.
- Best thing to do if you’re told to stop is just so stop, move on, and find a different fandom to be active in.
- Writing Real Person Fanfic (“RPF”) can be considered a violation of consent.
- This article sums it up pretty well, but basically… if you decide to write RPF, be aware that they person you are writing about is a real person, with real thoughts, and emotions, and they may feel violated by RPF. If you decide to write it, never send it to the people it’s about, and always clearly tag it so other can choose to engage with it, or avoid it.
- Also be aware that it could ruin their love for what they do. For example: the friendships between the members of 1Direciton became strained and the band eventually disintegrated because people wouldn’t stop sending band members smutty stories or art of them having sex with one another, and it made them too uncomfortable to continue in the band.
- Showing/sharing fanfic & fanart outside of its intended context. Fanworks are for fans, and there are definitely issues if…
- It’s shown to celebrities/actors/creators.
- Shoving your fantasies onto the people who create or portray your fave characters is rude, and wrong, and also kinda gross. If they seek it out themselves, that’s one thing, but the same way you wouldn’t throw it at a complete stranger, don’t throw it at them. You may love the characters these people play, but they are not their characters, and they are not your friends.
- It may also really weird them out and ruin their love for what they do.
- it’s shown to writers working on the series.
- There was a famous case where a fanficcer sent a story to a novelist, and the novelist was accused of plagiarism by the ficcer when their next novel in the series resembled the plot of that fanfic. There was a whole court case and everything.
- Because of this, writers of TV shows, books, etc. don’t want to (and often times, legally can’t) read your fanfic. They don’t want to get accidentally inspired by what you’ve written, or worse, have to throw out something because it resembles your fic too closely. Just let them write their stories the way they want, and if they choose to seek out fic, they will.
- it’s mocked by celebrities.
- I’m not letting Alan Carr and Graham Norton off the hook. If it’s super rude and gross to shove fanworks at actors/writers/creators when you’re a creator, then it’s doubly rude for anyone to take a story or art made for a specific audience (the fans), by a specific community (the fans), lift it out of it’s context, and invite the public to mock it while also shoving it at the actor/celebrity in a place where they are literally cornered and can’t leave (i.e. the chat-show sofa). Man, it really steams me up when they do that. It’s rude and it’s tone-deaf, and it’s not
- And most of the time they do it, they don’t even ask the artist or writer for permission, first, which is just…. Uuuuugggghhhh. It may be fanfic, but it was still created by someone, and you should always ask permission before publicly sharing something created by someone else.
If someone tells you that reading or writing fanfic is bad for you as a creator, tell them to get bent.
- Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda
- Wicked by Gregory Maguire
- Wicked: the Musical by Stephen Schwartz
- The Phantom of Manhattan by Fredrick Forsyth
- A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman
- Sherlock by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat
- The Dracula Tape, by Fred Saberhaugen
- Paradise Lost, John Milton
- Inferno, by Dante
- The Aeneid, by Virgil
- Ulysses, by James Joyce
- Romeo & Juliet, by William Shakespeare
- The Once and Future King by T.H. White
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain
- The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas
- Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, by Seth Grahame-Smith
- Phantom, a novel of his life by Susan Kaye
- …and so many more.
Find more WORDS FOR WRITERS articles here.